The last time the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions met, Alex Smith had an awful game. Clearly bothered by the athletic defensive line of the Lions, Smith averaged just 3.9 yards per pass attempt and had two turnovers.
Fortunately for Smith, the running game, defense and special teams were all dominant in San Francisco's 25-19 win at Ford Field in October of last season.
After the Jim Harbaugh-Jim Schwartz postgame shenanigans, you have to believe that the Lions circled this game on their schedule.
Will a fired-up Lions squad get revenge against Harbaugh's 49ers? Read on for the keys to the game and a prediction.
When these teams met a year ago, the 49ers had a safety essentially doubling Johnson on every pass play. Yet Johnson still had seven catches for 113 yards.
It seems crazy to say that the 49ers "contained" him with that stat line, but considering he did most of his damage between the 20s and didn't score a touchdown, I'd say mission accomplished.
I expect the 49ers to once again double Johnson on nearly every play on Sunday. But this time around, don't be surprised if Matthew Stafford tests those double-teams more.
San Francisco safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner don't have great ball skills, whereas Johnson is one the league's best at adjusting to the flight of the deep ball and catching it at its highest point.
Goldson and Whitner's best friend would be a stifling pass rush that doesn't allow Stafford to get off many deep passes. Eventually, Stafford will have the time to take a shot downfield, and whichever safety is in position needs to bat the ball away.
The best way to combat an aggressive pass rush is to run the ball right at it. The 49ers had 203 rushing yards against the Lions last year, but despite all that success, they only had 14 points on the scoreboard 58 minutes into the game.
Normally, I'd have no issue with a 32-pass, 29-run play distribution, which was the final ratio for San Francisco against Detroit a year ago. But against the Lions, the 49ers would be wise to have a 60-40 ratio in favor of the run.
This way, the 49ers will ideally stay out of more 3rd-and-longs and get better returns when utilizing the play-action pass.
I'm not convinced that the Lions have the personnel to slow down Kendall Hunter and Frank Gore, and until they prove they can, the 49ers should keep pounding the rock right down their throats.
He will have a very similar task Sunday night.
When these teams met last year, Stafford averaged just 5.9 yards per attempt, and the 49ers sacked him five times. San Francisco did most of its damage without blitzing. Ray McDonald, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks were confusing Detroit with stunts.
If the 49ers can get major pressure again with a four-man pass rush, this game could get ugly.
I suspect the Lions offensive line will have a better performance this time around now that it has game experience against the San Francisco pass rush.
If so, Fangio will need to mix up his defensive looks, dropping eight into coverage on some plays and blitzing multiple linebackers/defensive backs on others.
As long as Stafford is off-balance, the 49ers should be able to keep the Lions out of 20s and cruise to victory.
The Packers and Lions aren't too different. Both teams have several defensive lapses and feature incredible aerial assaults.
The one major difference is that the Lions have Calvin Johnson.
He's capable of a 200-yard, two-touchdown performance against any team in the league. That type of performance would be enough to beat the 49ers, but I just don't see it happening.
San Francisco's pass rush will force Stafford to get rid of the ball much quicker than he wants, which will lead to several mistimed throws on third down.
Meanwhile, Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and the 49ers running game will tire out the Lions over-aggressive defensive line, which will pay major dividends in the second half.
Alex Smith will play much better than he did against the Lions last year. The crowd noise in Ford Field contributed to his poor performance. This time around, he'll be at home and have the benefit of playing with new additions Randy Moss and Mario Manningham.
Expect San Francisco to put the Lions away with a dominant third quarter and cruise to a 2-0 record.
San Francisco 30, Detroit 17